Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment An Xiao’s series which explores the recent history and parameters of Social Media Art. Part One appeared on Wednesday and Part Two appeared on Wednesday.

Digital Gets Physical … On November 2, 2009, at 4:12 pm, I was having a late lunch in Santa Monica at Cafe Crepe, just a few blocks from the beach. I remember it was pretty good, and it was a perfect day for eating outside and people watching. But if it weren’t for an application called Foursquare, which allows me to “check in” from a physical location and tell all my friends, I’d never have remembered when exactly I was there.

Foursquare is capitalizing on the “digital gets physical” trend in tech, which in turns is impacting social media art. (image via ppeach.com)

At the time, Foursquare was exclusive to major American cities, but a couple months later, it would open up the floodgates to checking in anywhere in the world. Little more than a year since it was founded, it boasts over a million users, a milestone that took two years for Twitter to achieve.

Foursquare is currently a popular example of an emerging trend toward seamlessly blending the online and offline worlds. As I write this, more and more sites are featuring geolocation services made possible by smartphones equipped with GPS. Other, online/offline technologies have included the ever-popular Zipcar, which connects its cars with the web (and, recently, iPhones) using RFID; Metro Paris Subway, the first smartphone app to utilize augmented reality to superimpose digital data onto real world images; and M-Pesa, which allows real-world, person-to-person transactions of money via SMS.

As Frog design Creative Director Adam Richardson noted in an influential talk he gave at the most recent Next Web Conference, the Internet until recently has been like the railroad, which has forced us to adapt to its rules. In the coming years, it will be more like cars, which adapt to us and our way of life.

In other words, the digital is getting physical.

Blending the Rules

Recently, more and more artists using social media have placed their art as much in online space as in physical space, presenting a vision of social media art more closely aligned with how we use mainstream social media in general — as an extension of our lives, rather than a separate practice. And interestingly, more social media artists today are surrendering a portion of their creative will to the whims of the crowd, making their practices significantly more social.

Nic Rad's PeopleMatter project

Nic Rad’s “PeopleMatter” project

When Nic Rad gave away 99 portraits of well-known New York media personalities, like Clay Shirky and Gillian Reagan, at his gallery show People Matter, he says he wanted to respond to the Internet’s current culture of free. Presented in Rare Gallery, his portraits were originally sourced by him, but soon were littered with “gamers,” (i.e., those who had used blogs, tweets, emails and other social methods to convince him to paint their portrait instead). At the same time, Rad engaged fans of his work to argue for why they deserve a particular piece for free (I made my own argument for the portrait of @MuseumNerd). In so doing, he worked to make the entire art process, from creation to sales, a social and socially-driven experience.

In the performance arena, Man Bartlett performed 24h #BestNonBuy, in which he spent 24 hours in the Union Square Best Buy (which, you might guess, is always open), tweeting about his experience but not purchasing anything. New Yorkers were encouraged to stop by to see him in action, but anyone could participate by following his Twitter feed.  Since then, Bartlett’s quickly become a social media microstar, with performances almost every month situated in New York City but made interactive online, including “#24hOpen”, tweeted during Michael Asher’s 2010 Whitney Biennial event, and #24hEcho, which received a reported 1,000 online visitors (as a very rough point of comparison, 1,400 photos of sitters have been posted to the Abramović Flickr, illustrating how much more personalized interaction an Internet performance can have).

Man Bartlett during 24h #BestNonBuy

Man Bartlett during 24h “#BestNonBuy” (via flickr.com/hragv)

And out West, appropriately set in Los Angeles, Lauren McCarthy launched “Script,” where she gave control of each day of her life to the whims of her Internet followers. Using a wiki-style format, visitors could anonymously edit the script by adding or deleting lines. Though little documentation exists of her performances outside of a few snapshots and the archived scripts, the concept of the crowd-sourced life resonates with current Internet trends: our real-world lives are increasingly being defined not only by technology but also by who’s on the other end of that technology.

These artists’ explorations interest me because of how they seamlessly blend online and offline; I wasn’t physically present for most of their shows, and yet I feel like I was there all along. Further, and perhaps more importantly, I felt like I had some level of influence in the ultimate result of their creative actions: to varying degrees of success, each artist made their social media work social.

A Defining Moment

Defining any form of art, especially while it’s still emerging, is difficult at best and harmfully restrictive at worst. The emergence of any new medium gives artists a new playground with which to work, but it can often take years before it becomes clear which pieces are the true gems that helped define a new art form and which were simply trends of the moment.

Those who follow Hyperallergic will know that I recently convened a roundtable discussion of social media artists to try to understand this emerging field. They included individual artists — Man Bartlett, Lauren McCarthy, Nina Meledandri, Christi Nielsen, Nic Rad — whose work had caught my eye, and three members of @Platea — Jonny Gray, Joanie San Chirico, and Jennifer Ng. Appropriately, we held the chat on Facebook, on Hyperallergic’s discussion boards.

Lauren McCarthy in the midst of Script 2010.

Lauren McCarthy in the midst of “Script.”

As I struggled to define social media art, Nic Rad told me succinctly: “Social media art is art done on social media.” This is right. But working with him and the above artists, I’ve settled upon four helpful rules of thumb for evaluating a deceptively-simple practice.

1. The web plays a key role not just in the marketing or sourcing of the art but the *expression* of the art. The art must be adapted to the device or platform; it has to respond specifically to the online space. There’s a small but important semantic difference between art on Twitter and Twitter art. The former suggests the traditions of art moved into Twitter, while the latter suggests art in which Twitter is seamlessly integrated. I can’t help but think of the early movies coming out of Hollywood, where the camera was set still; it was simply theater brought to film. As Christi Nielsen told me, “We have to make something specific to this medium, to this space.”

2. The art involves the audience in some fashion; it is inherently a social medium. Many would disagree, but in my opinion, the most exciting social media art inspires the crowd to co-create the work in some fashion; it is inherently social. Just as the social web has opened the doors for would-be photographers, op-ed writers, and other fields traditionally restricted to those with professional training, so should social media art open the doors for would-be artists. Whether or not we want to measure success by numerical engagement is a question, I think, that’s up for debate.

One of Nina Meledandri's responses to my 1stfans Twitter project, which involved Morse code.

One of Nina Meledandri’s responses to my 1stfans Twitter project, which involved Morse code.

3. The art is accessible beyond a “typical” art world audience while still being conceptually rich. In some sense, as Jonny Gray brought up, social media art reawakens the folk art tradition: “Folk art may have recognizable (and often recognized) practitioners, but the tradition itself blurs the line between artist and audience (I mean in situ more than when it is cultural display for the tourists’ gaze). Folk art is of and by the people.” And yet, as cultural consumers, we must apply the same critical eye to social media art that we do to contemporary fine art and continue to evaluate the work against the artist’s intent. Which leads us to my final point …

4. The bottom line: it’s all about the artist’s intent.
Above all, when critiquing a social media art piece, I find the same rules apply: it’s most important to understand the artist’s intent, and how successfully she or he actualized it. But, as Joanie San Chirico suggested, the audience’s influence can alter a piece: “The artist’s intent has to be fluid and may even completely transform before the completion of the work.”

Augmented Creativity

As with any new technological medium, artists like myself and the roundtable participants are coming out of the webwork to find new ways to engage these media. From Christi Nielsen’s early explorations in Second Life to Nic Rad’s socially-engaged portraiture, each individual artist finds a new and compelling way to utilize these media as tools of self-expression. And as we’ve seen, much of the current practice of social media art continues in the traditions of net.art, visual art, public art and performance art, a reflection of the different facets of mainstream social media that artists tap into.

Shots from Christi Nielsen's inter.sect art collective

Shots from Christi Nielsen’s inter.sect art collective

What I find most exciting about social media art, then, is how it opens the doors to access, a subject thrown about regularly in the art world but which can mean little in the face of simple facts: most people don’t live in art capitals like New York, London, and Beijing, and even fewer receive an education in the contemporary art popular in those locales.

Artists like William Powhida and Jennifer Dalton, who made #class open to anyone with an Internet connection, and institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, with its online web cam of “The Artist Is Present” (2010), are pushing a new definition of access: one that doesn’t require physical proximity.

Furthermore, social media presents a fascinating new way to extend and enhance traditional arts practices, rather than replace them. Art can be done in the offline world but made available in the online world, and vice versa. It can weave back and forth seamlessly. It’s augmented art.

Hype and Access

Not exactly what the Great Firewall looks like but still … (via lostlaowai.com)

Of course, there’s something to be said against the hype around social media technologies; it can often feel hyperbolic, naive even, to think that any new technology can change the (art) world.  A decade after eBay and Etsy turned the Internet into an international marketplace, most artists still struggle to sell their work outside the gallery system, and it’s hard to imagine many artists finding critical recognition if they don’t live in a major art center, even if their work is accessible via the Internet.

And in the social media landscape, where self-described “experts” emerge left and right to promote traditional principles of marketing, artists may feel more pressure to brand themselves, thereby manufacturing an online persona with an eye toward sales and cheap attention. The social media environment in particular can also make it easy to evaluate one’s creative worth largely by the easy metrics available on most sites.

But watching the global artistic community emerging out of social media, I can’t help but think that mainstream social media present a unique opportunity to level the playing field.

Before 2004, it would have been difficult to imagine an art collective with members from as far away as Perth, Australia to Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, who hadn’t previously considered themselves artists. It certainly would have been impossible to imagine Ai Weiwei posting live updates of the aftermath of a beating he suffered in Chengdu, as he turned activism and authoritarianism into a form of art in a country kept behind the “Great Firewall.”

And Lo, There Was Much Retweeting

The “tweets,” as I’ve written before, are the new streets, giving us a rich new public landscape for exploring and expressing art to hundreds of millions and soon billions of people connected via mobile phones, smartphones, tablets, netbooks, laptops, desktop PCs, and other future devices we’re only beginning to imagine.

It’s only a matter of time, I suspect, before a social media artist working largely outside established arts institutions and centers finds the same kind of success that stars like Kara Walker and Jeff Koons have found through the standard system of galleries and museums. This artist’s work would be accessible to anyone in the world with an Internet connection, co-created, funded, and promoted primarily through social media channels.

By then, of course, we may no longer think of the work as social media art, so blurry will the distinction be between our online and offline worlds. It will, perhaps, just be art.


Frontpage image caption: An Xiao’s Under the Bridge Festival project (2009)

See Part One and Part Two.

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice. 

9 replies on “Always Social: Right Now (2010 — ), Part Three”

  1. This is really fascinating. I was recently at a conference in Rome (FOI10) about interaction design; the past two years of this conference have been about the internet of things; the 2010 version talked about the social integration of that physical, connected object. Its application to art is the next step, and this is an eloquent analysis of an emerging trend of which few people (myself included) are aware.

  2. This reminds me, almost verbatim, of the discussions surrounding Mail Art back when that was the new medium. I think point #1 in the 4-point roundup is the critical one. Social media art, to be considered as such, has to have a very direct way of drawing attention to itself as social media art. With mail art, it wasn’t simply enough to send art through the US Mail–it had to draw attention to the system itself. For example, people would try to send bowling balls with just an address on them, send pizza boxes (with pizza in them), and write things to vague addresses such as “The Government”. It seems to be much the same with the newest communicative media.

    This is where point 2 is so critical. The distinguishing factor of social media is response time. Not only do people respond almost instantaneously, people have to respond quickly. Tweets get buried with extreme efficacy when a topic comes up often, so everyone has to be on the ball. The other strange thing about social media is the ability to disconnect. When you’re offline, the connection is gone, the experience is over.

    I’m not so sure that point 3 is totally critical. The ease of access is there, which is a symptom of the non-physical space, but it’s still a matter of who will look. It doesn’t seem like the greater audience is interested because of the art itself, but they become interested because of the relevance to Twitter and Facebook. I think this is why we’ve seen the quick rise of artists like Matt Held, who used Facebook to choose subjects, promote his idea, and showcase the work.

    Problems seem to come into the equation when these things wind up in galleries and outside of the digital realm. Looking at the object itself, do we see the connection to social media? With Nic’s work, is the analog version of the idea bound to social media or is it just a set of portraits? I’m not sure what the answer is, and I go back and forth with the idea. When I look at them and try to block out the knowledge of why they were made, I see a set of adept, loose portraits. When I look at them with the knowledge of who these people are and how they are connected, I start to see a system (and this is interesting to me), but I don’t see social media, exactly. When I see them promoted through social media, the idea comes across precisely.

    It will be great to see how these ideas develop in the next few years. I think as the technology blends more and more with the existing world, we’ll see the art blend more and more with the technology. I can imagine someone doing a piece by giving an audience a simple set of instructions via their phones, and having them carry out (or not carry out) those instructions in the real world.

    1. Love that you’re referencing mail art – I do think mail could certainly be considered a social medium, perhaps one of the earliest in human history.

      I realize point 3 is the most contentious. I think what I’m trying to get at here with this article is that social media art has been following the trends of social media in general. And if social media are improving accessibility to information, government, journalism, etc., then it should follow that social media art is also more accessible. I’m not wed to this (as opposed to 1 and 2 – I agree with you that they’re critical), but I do feel that a certain level of accessibility makes for a stronger social media art work.

      Regarding works that exist in the physical world, I think you’re right – when evaluating work as social media art, it’s important to see how much everything ties in together, both digitally and physically. It’s this idea of integration that interests me, and why I chose to focus Part 3 on it — suspect we’ll be seeing more gallery shows like Nic’s that feature these multiple levels of experience, from digital to physical.

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